A thousand kilometers from Stormford’s western mountain range was a vast desert.
While it may not have been the largest desert, it was certainly one of the most dangerous. It had no proper name. For more than a thousand years, those exiled from the Elysian lands were exiled to this inhospitable place where grass did not grow and even the birds loathed to visit.
From time to time, beasts from elsewhere also moved into the territory. But whether from Stormford or somewhere else, very few managed to survive. Over time the nameless expanse was given a new moniker – The Cursed Desert.
It was a thousand kilometers in all directions. An endless stretch of danger and hostility. Some remote areas had consistent signs of life, but they were also the most unforgiving. Of course, the more brutal the environment, the more cruel the creatures that survived within it.
As for people? Who in their right mind wanted to live in such a place? Only the crazy – but these were crazy times. There was no shortage of people out of their right mind. At least as far as Jara was concerned, this group was fucking nuts.
Three days ago they’d appeared in the desert and presented themselves before him. For a pretty penny they convinced him to lead them into the desert in search of an old legend. The oasis Kesjir.
The name was a holdover from an ancient local language and it meant ‘the forgotten paradise.’ Even in the no-man’s land that was the Cursed Desert, it was reputed that a place of unmatched beauty existed. Of course reaching this hidden gem was costly, and entering even more so.
Jara was a simple wasteland traveler. For years he had traveled the sands, looking for a place to settle. While he knew the path to Kesjir he never tried to make the journey himself. A man of his mediocre talents would never be welcome.
Today the rolling dunes were marred by a string of black figures. As they picked their way across the sands, Jara looked over his clients. They were all dressed in dark cloaks and said hardly anything. Their leader walked around with his hood lowered, revealing shoulder-length black hair. Whipping sands were strong enough to mar steel, but did nothing to this stranger’s handsome features.
There was something extraordinary about his looks and temperament. He was oddly… perfect. But also kind of an asshole.
All kinds of horrible creatures lived in this awful place. One was a scorpion twice the size of a camel with a carapace as strong as iron. Their pincer could crush tanks. These monsters were a plague and one of the most dangerous things they could encounter.
Unfortunately for them, they ran into such a beast on their first night of the journey.
Even now, days later, Jara had a hard time getting it out of his head. The young stranger cast out a flame with a flick of his wrist and all of a sudden the scorpion was a column of fire. There wasn’t anything left of it when the eerie green light finally extinguished.
With power like that, they had to have come from the legendary Elysian lands!
Jara’s ancestors had been exiled from there. He’d never seen them himself, but he’d heard stories. For years he’d wandered the Cursed Desert and saw all sorts of powerful beings – but nothing like this guy.
He couldn’t really be called crazy like the others, and yet… What other reason could there be for him to come to this hellhole? What was so bad about the Elysian realms, where they could have anything they wanted?
There was only one thing that made sense to Jara. The hidden treasure.
Old legends claimed that in the deepest parts of the desert, where it was most dangerous, lay an unimaginable hoard of riches. Whoever found it was said to be granted eternal life and limitless power.
Such a tale was the only thing that could attract a man like this. But when Jara thought about their destination it filled him with disquiet. It was too far, too dangerous. While he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t enticing the desert was home to ten times as many horror stories as legendary treasures.
The damn place was called the Cursed Desert, after all. It earned the name from numberless terrible things waiting for unsuspecting victims.
His thoughts were interrupted when the young man named Cloudhawk asked him a question. “How much longer?”
“Well boss, following this path it should take us three days and three nights to reach Kesjir. We’re likely to pass a number of monster lairs as we go, so we should keep a sharp eye.”
Jara clung to the back of a camel as they forged ahead through biting winds. It got so bad a man couldn’t tell north from south. But Jara was born with a keen sense of direction that helped him survive out here. Yet despite his skills, the deeper they went the more uncomfortable he became. They were crossing territory he’d never been to before.
It was noon and the sunlight bit like daggers. It baked the sands and even the swirling wind warbled unsettlingly. Sands were scalding hot as they spun through eddies, making the environment unbearable.
Jara felt like the heat was burning away the oxygen. Every breath was like smoldering sandpaper in his throat. Without water even someone like Jara who had been born out here would perish in less than a day.
Were they really going forward? His resolve was starting to waver.
“Where we’re going I’ve only ever heard people talk about. Never been myself. I don’t know what we’re in for, see-“
“It doesn’t matter, don’t worry. Nothing we run into will be a problem.” The young man cut him off with an easy smile. It was incredible and unsettling how calm he was as they picked their way through the hellscape. After a moment he went on. “But three days is too long. We need to speed this up.”
Jara gulped back his shock. They were already taking the fastest route and three days was a conservative estimate. If they encountered monsters or sandstorms along the way – or gods forbid they got lost – it wouldn’t be unthinkable for the journey to last ten days. Then they’d really be in trouble.
In silence they crept to the crest of the nearest sand dune. Jara paused to look out in all directions – a subconscious gesture, he wasn’t looking for anything in particular. There wasn’t anything to see but rolling waves of sand out into eternity. I made one wonder if it was all there ever was.
But… something was different. Even with his excellent eyesight Jara could just barely make it out. Out there, just at the cusp of his vision was a dark green line. It was so far and so thin he figured it had to be a mirage, but as he fixed on it he figured it had to be real. Several days’ journey would bring them to it.
“There, at last!”
Cloudhawk cast his eyes toward the horizon. His sight was ten times more powerful than the wastelander’s so he could see it clearly. That thin green line was actually a mountain range. The legendary Kesjir had to be somewhere within them.
It wasn’t going to be easy to find.
The stories said skies over Kesjir were shrouded in sand, making it impossible to see from above. There was some strange force shielding it from detection that prevented even relics from pointing the way.
Cloudhawk was left with no other method but this one, as simple and crude as it was. Eliciting the local Jara, the hope was they could find this secret paradise in a few short days. He turned his head and called over his shoulder.
“Abaddon. Handle this.”
A croaky, rasping laughter answered as the hooded companion reached out.
Jara had paid close attention to this particularly towering member of the party. He was wrapped in robes that covered every part of him, but his height alone was enough to prove he wasn’t an ordinary man. Most likely he was some kind of mutant.
But when Abaddon reached out he saw his hand peak from the sleeve. It was encased in a hideous sort of armor that clung to him like a second skin, made from a sort of material he’d never seen before. He was definitely no average mutant, either!
Just then a sensation he couldn’t quite place wafted through him. The dunes melted beneath their feet and reformed into an enormous golem. It plucked itself from the ground as though awakening from a deep slumber while the travelers clung to its shoulders.
This thing was huge! At least two hundred meters tall. The body was made of constantly flowing sand like some kind of nightmare demon. It took five minutes for the thing to rise to full height.
Jara and his camel were scared out of their minds. This was like something out of a dream!
During this time Abaddon had merged with the golem. Using it like a pack animal, it carried the others toward the distant mountains. At first its gait was slow, but slowly picked up speed until they were soaring across the desert four or five hundred meters per stride!
Only once they’d covered a huge distance did Jara find his voice away. “You… w-what are you trying to do?!”
“Take Kesjir, of course.”
Cloudhawk’s flippant response shook the local to his core. This group had traveled thousands of kilometers to come and capture the hidden paradise? There were just four of them!